Free speech loses to Islamists at UK universities

Two events last week crystallized the grave danger facing freedom of speech in the United Kingdom.

Warwick U. Students’ Union Censors Speaker against Radical Islam, Then Caves

Miryam Namazie is a human rights campaigner, critic of Islamism, and member of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.  Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists Society (WASH) invited her to speak at Warwick University in Coventry, England on October 28.  The university’s students’ union then rescinded the invitation on the stated grounds that Namazie was “highly inflammatory” and could spread hatred and intolerance against Muslims. 

WASH’s president objected and began an online petition asking the union to reverse its decision.  Prominent people, including Richard Dawkins and physicist Brian Cox, signed the petition.  Others, like Salman Rushdie and science writer Ben Goldacre, also criticized the decision.  Dawkins complained, “To ban a speaker you happen to disagree with is a contemptible betrayal of everything a university stands for.”  Rushdie echoed this observation, commenting, “Protecting students from ideas is idiocy.  It is the free play of ideas that universities must protect.”  Under the public pressure, the students’ union buckled and reversed course on September 27, offering a “full and unequivocal apology” to Namazie. 

Warwick University and its students’ union have been criticized before for creating a campus atmosphere hostile to free speech.  Spiked gave the students’ union a red (worst) rating and the university itself a yellow rating in its Free Speech University Rankings.  What’s new here isn’t the effort to suppress speech, but the positive outcome. 

The moral?  Firm and outspoken support for free speech is an effective tool against politically correct speech suppression.

“Passion for Freedom” Show Not So Passionate, Censors Anti-ISIS Artwork

Censorship at a London art exhibit – ironically entitled “Passion for Freedom” – has garnered less press attention but is perhaps more typical for being more insidious.  This was the seventh year for the annual show, on display September 21-26, whose mission has been described as “to display the work of artists who are thinking seriously about freedom, what it means and how you lose it.”  It describes its purpose as “[c]reat[ing] space for artists and writers who discuss subjects omitted in politically correct circles [and inviting] people to open and uninhibited discussion.”  Brave words.

One of the advertised entries this year, called “Isis Threatens Sylvania,” consisted of a series of seven satirical light box tableaux by the artist known as Mimsy.  The scenes showed peaceful village residents going about their business, like girls going to school and people vacationing at the beach, suddenly assaulted by armed Islamists.  Police alerted organizers that they considered the work’s content “potentially inflammatory” and that, if it were included in the six-day show, police would charge £36,000 for security. 

The show opted to drop the piece, which remained listed in the program and online.  The move was condemned by the Index on Censorship, but major celebrities did not speak out about it as they did over the Warwick University Student Union ban.  Perhaps they did not know about it.

Let us assume that the show organizers acted from practical necessity and not fear.  And, since the show had already accepted Mimsy’s piece and advertised it in the program, let us assume that political correctness and desire to censor played no role in the final decision to exclude it.  The end result was the same.  The cost (here, financial) of free expression about Islamist violence simply became too high. 

The threat of radical Islam is not shrinking, but growing.  As it grows, decisions about whether to speak out about, expose, and confront it have become more widespread and urgent.  Unfortunately, the counter-pressures not to do so – be they fear of physical violence, ideological disdain, and intimidation (political correctness) or the more mundane one of cost – often overwhelm the impulse to speak out.

Once upon a time, a group of people asserted their country’s freedom by “mutually pledg[ing] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  Freedom will survive only if people are willing to make these sacrifices.

Johanna Markind is associate counselor for the Middle East Forum.

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